Australians are being told that to find their national identity, they must become a republic. All our feelings of patriotism and national unity will presumably then centre on a president. We will be fulfilled as never before. This is a bizarre argument. The Australian Republican Movement endorses Paul Keating’s proposal for a republic. This means the president will be chosen by our Canberra politicians at a joint sitting. There will be only one candidate. (And we thought that sort of election went out with the Soviet Union!) The presidential candidate must be approved by a two-thirds majority. This means that the politicians will have to do a deal beforehand. Doing deals is an unsavoury but essential part of politics. And each side has to gain something. The deal is usually secret. We don’t know all the terms. One such deal was the Kirribilli House agreement. Bob Hawke agreed that at some time after the coming election, he would hand over the prime ministership to Paul Keating. The deal was witnessed by a big businessman and the ACTU Chief. It was kept secret from the public even at the election. We only knew about it when Bob Hawke refused to carry it out. And how was Mal Colston kept in Parliament and then elected Deputy President if there were no deals?
Any president who emerges from this sort of deal will be a politician, whether or not he or she is a member of parliament. The president will have to be part of the deal. Giving him the powers of the Governor-General, without the constraints that now apply will ensure that he will have to behave as a politician. In fact his powers will be quite similar to those of Jacques Chirac, the French President!
That a president, especially chosen in this way, could be a focus of national identity is laughable. In fact there will be seven of them – all in presidential palaces, all travelling in presidential motorcades and their own jets, all, one supposes, insisting on 21 gun salutes when they land in foreign airports.
This concept of a republic, with even more politicians, is alien to Australia.
An Australian national identity developed soon after the foundation of the first colony. Within a few decades, we were self-governing. We adapted the Westminster institutions to our own needs. In a number of areas we became and still are one of the world’s leading democracies! Examples include the secret ballot, votes for women and in most states even at Federation, votes for the indigenous people.
It is an insult to our forefathers that we can have no true national identity until we have a president. The pioneers who developed this country, the soldiers, sailors and airforcemen who served their country knew what it is to be Australians. Who can hear our national songs, read our poetry or see our fag flying in the breeze, and not feel what it is to be an Australian?
It is sometimes said that becoming a republic does not mean the flag will have to be changed. Then why is there an exhibition of new flags touring the country, supporter by the Australian Republican Movement? One of the possible candidates for a new flag, according to the glossy brochure is a gross insult to all Australians. It states boldly "F— Off Back To Fag Land". Republicanism is obviously part of a movement to change the constitution and the flag.
Of course, some republicans may have a different view of our national identity and our symbols. There is such a bewildering array of republicans it is difficult to find a common theme behind their proposals. For example, some want to abolish the Senate and the States, a proposal which would ensure that three or four states would consider leaving the federation. The other day a distinguished expatriate suggested that our Australian republic should have a sort of House of Lords. Its membership would be determined on racial lines! (Why do some expatriates have strong and sometimes erroneous views on the Constitution? They don’t even live here!)
Well, ordinary Australians know who they are. What was common to the pioneers,
what was common to those who served to defend our nation, what is common to Australians who in every day life struggle for their families, is that they aspire to do the right thing. That is, the essence of our national identity – courage, especially courage against all the odds.
It is epitomised in Banjo Patterson’s Australian poem, The Man from Snowy River. This is the story of the attempt to recover a valuable colt which had joined a mob of wild mountain horses. It is the Man from Snowy River, a stripling on a small and weedy horse, who is an Australian hero.
And he ran them single handed till their sides were white with foam.
He followed like a bloodhound on their track,
Till they halted cowed and beaten, then lie turned their heads for home,
And alone and unassisted brought them back.
But his hardy mountain pony, he could scarcely raise a trot,
He was blood from hip to shoulder from the spur,
But his pluck was still undaunted, and his courage fiery hot,
For never yet was mountain horse a cur.
This is what our national identity is all about. Not seven more politicians chosen after shady deals behind closed doors. Our national identity, in peace and war, at work, in the family, and on our sporting fields is all about our aspiration for, and our respect of, indomitable courage against all odds.
(Note: These papers were prepared in the context of the first version of the Keating-Turnbull republic 1993-1998. This model was superseded by the second version which was unveiled in the last days of the 1998 Constitutional Convention.)